Zephaniah brought a very unpopular message to the children of Judah. Judah was God’s chosen people and yet this warning was addressed to them. The message, however, was concerning the whole world. Zephaniah 1:2-3 says, “‘I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth,’ declares the Lord.” During the days of Noah, God wiped away all the living creatures except those in the ark with Noah. The fish, of course, survived the flood. But Zephaniah’s prophecy included the fish as well. His prophecy involved a more thorough house cleaning than what occurred in the days of Noah. It’s a shocking way to begin a prophecy. Don’t you agree? “I will sweep away everything.” Bruckner says, “The image ‘sweep away’ refers to the wind that ‘sweeps’ chaff away from grain during threshing. The verb is doubled in Hebrew for emphasis (‘utterly sweep away’), indicating that the coming wind is no ordinary wind that will separate the grain and chaff. Rather, it is a storm wind that will ‘sweep away everything,’ the chaff mixed together with the grain.”[1]

When God created the world according to Genesis chapter 1, mankind was the last thing he created. In Zephaniah’s prophecy, man is the first to go. The beasts go next. Birds are next, and fish are next. God reverses the order in which he created all life. Barker notices this and writes, “Zephaniah artfully reverses the order of creation, letting man the last made become the first destroyed. The two verses of the present section testify to the intention of God to undo creation. Everything would be swept away from the face of the earth. All living things are to be destroyed in this scouring of the world, so a picture of emptiness is projected. By this picture, Zephaniah is proclaiming man’s loss of dominion over all the earth, and more importantly, the reversal of creation.… Yahweh’s ‘sweeping’ will be just as bleak as his creating was abundant. Nogalski notes that ‘the allusions to the creation and flood accounts are specifically selected for their emotional impact.’”[2]

Such a devastating prophecy might cause us to question God’s love. The truth is, however, that such a devastating prophecy is evidence of God’s love. As in the days of Noah, to warn people of a coming disaster is to offer an opportunity to escape. It’s often said “forewarned is forearmed.” Hurricane Ida struck the southeastern gulf states between Florida and as far west as Alabama last year. When the weather channel exhorted people to flee inland many heeded the call and saved their lives. But according to Wikipedia 107 deaths were attributed to Hurricane Ida. Among the reasons many didn’t heed the warning, researchers found several answers to that question. Among them are they underestimated the crisis, or they simply waited too long. Bridger says, “I believe that those who give these warnings are people who have our best interests at heart. I am eager to hear what they have to say. I don’t want to be ignorant about any possible future disaster. I want to respond responsibly to these warnings. In the same way, God has my interests at heart when with great love and compassion he warns me about judgment to come. If we did not know about the wrath to come, we would not flee from it. It’s an essential part of our humanity that we are to live in the light of foreseen consequences. Zephaniah helps us to do so.”[3] God’s love is more than just a warning of coming danger though. It also includes deliverance. The most famous passage in John’s Gospel tells us, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).  In Hebrews 2:3, The writer asks us all “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?”

[1] Bruckner, James. 2004. Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] Barker, Kenneth L. 1999. Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah. Vol. 20. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[3] Bridger, Gordon. 2010. The Message of Obadiah, Nahum and Zephaniah: The Kindness and Severity of God. Edited by Alec Motyer and Derek Tidball. The Bible Speaks Today. Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press.